The SAS "mentoring" role in Kabul amounts to a "substantial combat role", the Government has admitted.
Defence Minister Wayne Mapp and the Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant General Rhys Jones, went into damage control yesterday following the death of Lance Corporal Leon Smith, the second SAS trooper to be killed in Afghanistan in two months.
They denied the term "mentoring" was used to soft-soap the public into believing the SAS had a safer role.
Lance Corporal Smith died from a shot to the head after an exchange of fire with insurgents in a compound in Wardak province. The insurgent who shot him was also killed, according to a Defence Force explanation of what happened.
Corporal Smith had been the first person to go to the aid of his comrade Doug Grant when he was shot during the siege of the British Council in Kabul by insurgents on August 19, General Jones said. He, himself, had met Corporal Smith on a recent visit to Kabul.
Calls for the withdrawal of New Zealand troops from Afghanistan have stepped up in the wake of the casualty including from two of National's support parties, the Maori Party and United Future, as well as Labour.
Dr Mapp and General Jones held a press conference which was monitored by Prime Minister John Key's deputy chief of staff. Mr Key was away from Wellington visiting the Wairarapa.
The Government is committed to keeping the SAS in Kabul until March next year, their deployment having been extended for a year at their own request. But it is clearly anxious that deaths do not erode public support.
A Herald-DigiPoll survey conducted in July showed that 23.1 per cent of respondents thought the SAS should stay in Kabul beyond March while 63.3 per cent said they should be withdrawn as scheduled.
Since the SAS have been stationed in Kabul they have been "mentoring" the Afghan Crisis Response Unit (CRU). General Jones said the term mentoring was used by the International Security Assistance Force and likened the risk to that facing a driving instructor. "You're in the car; if there's a crash you're going to get hurt."
Dr Mapp said that the Government had been very open with the public about the role of the SAS.
"It's obviously dangerous, no one's doubting that, and no one's doubting that men are literally within the range of lethal and mortal combat, but I believe that the Government is open with the New Zealand public about that."
Dr Mapp reminded reporters that the invasion of Afghanistan had been mandated by the United Nations because the Taleban had been sheltering al-Qaeda after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States and that there were 49 countries in the Nato-led ISAF.
Dr Mapp said the SAS mission was important "and we intend to complete the deployment".
General Jones rejected claims by a journalist in Kabul that the raid on the compound had been the result of a family feud in which someone alleged a family was harbouring a suicide bomber.
"Unless it was a humdinger of a family dispute, the time taken to compile the information to actually get the legal authority [arrest and search warrant] indicates this was a measured and legal response to a neighbour giving information and a tip-off."